As a seasoned health advocate, I’ve met with many Canadians who find themselves suddenly responsible for overseeing the medical care of an aging parent.
In today’s healthcare landscape, it’s far too easy to get “lost” in the system. Even those of us who are fully able to care for ourselves have to fight for the best medical care possible.
So when aging parents dealing with an injury, chronic illness, or multiple medical conditions are unable to process information or make informed medical care decisions on their own, their children are called upon to help out.
Caring for an elder parent in and of itself can be challenging. But if you live out of town, the stress is compounded.
That’s partial because many of us feel guilty about being unable to “do more”. This is particularly true when we have our own families to tend to, health concerns to worry about, and careers to manage.
It’s also not always financially possible for us to visit our loved ones as much as we might like. The cost of travel, time away from work, and arranging for babysitters are just a few examples of out-of-pocket expenses that not everyone can afford.
But the fact is, it can be difficult – if not impossible – to really get a sense of what’s going on medically with a parent without being there in person.I’ve seen many people use the following seven tips to manage the care of their loved one at a distance.
#1. Prepare the parent’s living space:
As parents age, we need to consider accessibility issues and potential hazards in the home. Does the parent’s tub/shower have a rail to help prevent falls? Are ramps now needed to accommodate a wheelchair or other walking device? Do you need to install a medical alert or alarm system in the home?
On your next visit, ensure that your parent has what he or she needs to live as comfortably and safely in the home as possible.
#2. Automate your parent’s bills and services.
Most monthly bills for phones, the internet, cable, and so on can be set to be paid automatically every month. You can also automate delivery services for groceries or prepared foods, as well as subscriptions to newspapers and magazines. This will take the administrative burden off you to ensure those bills are paid on time, avoiding late fees.
#3. Use technology to your advantage.
Make sure your parent has a medical alert system installed in the home as well as access to a cell phone in the event of an emergency either inside or outside the home. You’ll also want to invest in a laptop or tablet for your parent so that you can communicate daily by email or video chat.
Additionally, there are programs that give you remote access to another computer. This way, you can help your parent with bills or letter drafting from afar. It would also be a smart idea to ask caregivers to write up reports on your parent’s computer so that you have instant access to entries logged.
#4. Have a friend or neighbour visit your parents as frequently as possible.
The best way to determine how a parent is doing health-wise (mentally, emotionally, and physically) is to visit in person. If your financial situation or other family obligations don’t allow you to do so, consider hiring a neighbour or friend to make weekly home visits for you.
#5. Where possible, involve other family members in your parent’s care.
If you have siblings or other relatives living near your loved one, you should ask for their help. Figure out what each sibling or relative may be best at contributing. For example, is a sibling who lives nearby able to attend doctors’ visits? Would another nearby relative be willing to prepare meals for your parent or check in on occasion to ensure everything is okay?
#6. Give caregivers specific instructions and detailed information.
If you decide to hire at-home help or a caregiver, let them know what you expect of them. Give them detailed instructions with respect to your parent’s care. For example, are they meant to prepare home cooked meals or arrange for takeout? Are there dietary restrictions in place for your parent? Also, be sure to leave them a comprehensive list of medications and contacts (specialists, physicians, pharmacists, family members, etc.) so that they know what to do and who to call in the event of an emergency.
#7. Get the help you need.
If you are living at a distance from a loved one and cannot be present as often as you’d like, you may want to consider a health advocate.
Health advocates, also known as patient advocates, are an immeasurable help in getting your parent the best medical care possible. This will alleviate a great deal of stress and anxiety you may have in feeling unable to properly help your loved one from afar.
A patient advocate can source the best specialists, set up appointments, coordinate care, help to prepare for – and attend – visits with your parent, and follow up with specialists.
Many health advocates have medical professional backgrounds and can help you and your parent understand exactly what’s going on at every step of the process.
Here are some specifics on how a patient advocate can help:
Your elder parents will get the most out of their doctors’ visits.
It can be difficult for elder parents to understand the advice they receive at a doctor’s visit and manage their recommended medical care. A health advocate can prepare a list of symptoms and questions prior to the appointment, attend the appointment with your parent, and ensure that all questions are asked and answered in a way that the patient understands.
A health advocate will also create a documented record of medical decisions and prognosis that can be shared directly with you and other family members where your elder parent grants such access.
A health advocate helps with tasks outside a doctor’s office.
It is not uncommon for a patient who is diagnosed with an illness to leave their appointment not knowing what their diagnosis means, how it impacts them, and what they can and should do next.
Health advocates are able to give patients the information they need to understand their condition and care needs. They can provide supplemental information to give patients an idea of their prognosis and treatment options.
Health advocates can also pick up prescriptions and help with medical billing issues.
A health advocate helps to keep your parents safe.
Those who are ill or not fully capable may not be able to communicate their needs to emergency/hospital staff. For example, many patients feel uncomfortable or are not cognizant and do not ask about hospital room cleanliness. This is something a patient advocate can do on the patient’s behalf. They can also ensure medical staff cleans their hands prior to touching or handling the patient.
A patient advocate builds a relationship with your parent’s medical team.
You may not be there in person to develop a relationship with the medical team serving your parent, but your patient advocate can do so on your behalf. It’s important that someone knows all the players on the team and coordinates them so they can – together – best help your parents.
A health advocate is able to communicate and report directly to you where your parents may not be able to do so. This keeps you properly informed as to the status of your elder parent’s condition and care.